Although the death of a spouse is more common for women than for men, a man's chance of becoming a widower increases as he ages. According to the U.S. Census Bureau in 2001, approximately 3 percent of the men capable of marriage are widowed compared to 12 percent of the women. These proportions increase dramatically, however, among those sixty-five years of age and older (14% men versus 45% women) and even more so among those aged eighty-five and older where 43 percent of the men are widowers (compared to 80% of the women).
Often the widower experience is examined in light of similarities and differences between them and their female counterparts. Although there is a natural tendency to draw comparisons between widows and widowers, some features of "widowerhood" are unique and warrant special attention. It is also true that the course of bereavement among widowers is wrought with diversity and variability. The process of adaptation to the loss of their wives is rarely linear and is more aptly described as one of oscillation between good and bad days or even moments within a single day. Some cope more successfully than others who experience greater difficulty; however, there is a plethora of evidence that suggests that many ultimately demonstrate a high degree of resilience as time passes.
Oftentimes widowers' experiences are affected by a variety of factors, including their age, the relationship with their children, how well they are able to assume new responsibilities, and how much emotional and material support is available from others. Similarly, the loss of a wife can have adverse consequences on the widower's physical health. This too can vary depending on the widower's prior health, his lifestyle, and to what extent he possesses the skills he needs to take care of himself. Finally, while many widowers have the resources and skills that enable them to eventually cope and adapt on their own, a significant few turn to more formal sources of help. Widowers' motivation to seek assistance as well as the effectiveness of that help often is a product of their beliefs and expectations about how a man is to grieve and respond to loss.
What Widowers Experience
While women who lose their husbands often speak of feeling abandoned or deserted, widowers tend to express the loss as one of "dismemberment," as if they had lost something that kept them organized and whole. The Harvard Bereavement Study, a landmark investigation of spousal loss that took place in the Boston area during the late 1960s, reported that widowers often equated the death of their wives with the loss of their primary source of protection, support, and comfort. This went to the very core of their overall sense of wellbeing. It has been described as "being lost without a compass," usually due to their profound loneliness but also because widowers often depended on their wives for many things like managing the household, caring for their children, and being their only true confidant. This sense of being lost is more profound when widowers need help but have difficulty obtaining or even asking for it. They also can experience ambiguity about the emotions they are feeling and the uncertainty of how to express them.
Emotional response. Similar to widows, bereaved husbands experience an array of emotions, such as anger, shock (especially if the death is unexpected), numbness, denial, and profound sadness. Unlike widows, however, grieving men tend to control their emotions (with the possible exception of anger), for instance, by holding back and crying less openly. Widowers, more often than not, will channel their energy into active coping and problem-solving strategies like work, physical activity, or addressing disruptions in the household. At other times they may prefer to be alone with their thoughts, whether thinking about the circumstances surrounding their wife's death or reflecting on ways to cope with their new situation.
Widowers who experience the same emotions as widows but were raised with the belief that emotional control is a sign of strength often find themselves confronting an inner conflict about how to respond to a loss. The situation may instinctively call for a response that is emotional but the widower may not be socialized to express himself in that way. Adding to this confusion on the part of the widower is an assumption that there is only one way to grieve. Men usually express their feelings of grief in solitary ways, but this should not be construed as being any less intense than a widow's grief. At the same time, to a varying degree, some widowers express their emotions more openly than others, suggesting that while some responses may be more typical, any one widower's experience can be somewhat unique as well.
Mental health issues. Although not entirely conclusive, several studies suggest that widowers can be prone to depression after the death of their wives, especially when they are compared with their nonbereaved married counterparts. On average, married men are less likely than married women to be depressed. Most epidemiological studies report that marriage tends to be protective for men in terms of depression and other mental health problems, largely because a supportive marital relationship buffers them from the negative impact of the stress and strains of everyday life. Bereavement, therefore, is more depressing for many widowers because they, quite simply, have more to lose than widows. This is based on the assumption that a man's spouse is often his primary source of social support. Consequently, although a widower may have been more apt to express his thoughts and feelings to his wife when she was alive, he may be equally unlikely to be so open to others. Widows more frequently use alternative sources of support that can protect them more effectively from potentially adverse effects of the loss and other stressors.
In some studies, many widowers are more recently bereaved than the widows are, most often due to differences in life expectancy and remarriage rates between men and women. Men usually are widowed at a later age and are more likely to die before being bereaved for a long period of time. Younger widowers usually have more opportunities to remarry, whereas widowed women will have fewer options for remarriage and remain widowed longer. Because the most difficult time usually is early in the bereavement process, the widowers who participate in these studies will have had less time than the widows to adjust to the loss and more likely will report being depressed when they are interviewed. Not all research, however, supports the conclusion that widowers suffer more depression than widows. Many of the gender differences regarding depression and other mental health outcomes are largely unexplained and consequently are inconclusive.
The degree of difficulty that widowers face can be dependent on when in their own life the loss occurs. Although not necessarily true of everyone, many widowers whose wives die around the same time that they are retiring from their occupation (or soon thereafter) can be prone to more difficulty. Married couples often have expectations about how they intend to spend their retirement years together. Those expectations can be shattered as newly bereaved widowers suddenly find themselves facing retirement alone, which could be a source of depression or hopelessness. Conversely, men who are in their preretirement years might adapt more easily. They are typically still employed, could be more socially connected due to ties in the workplace, and might still have children in the home. Of course, these also can be potential sources of difficulty, particularly if relationships with children are strained or if assuming new responsibilities around the household interferes with the widower's effectiveness at work and elsewhere. Conversely, these life circumstances could represent a sense of feeling useful, involved, and being engaged in meaningful activity—all potential constructive coping mechanisms for the widower.
Health and Mortality among Widowers
Much of the research suggests that there is a greater prevalence of mortality and morbidity among the spousal bereaved compared to those who are currently married. Many of these same studies further report that the risk of becoming physically ill or dying soon after the loss of a spouse is greatest for widowers. The fact that men tend to be older when their spouses die could explain some of these findings. Although mortality is less common among younger widowers, the difference between their mortality rates and those of their married counterparts is greater than what is observed among older age groups, especially within the first six months of bereavement.
Why are some widowers at risk for illness and even death? One explanation is that married couples are exposed to the same environmental influences and often pursue similar lifestyles. If any of these have a negative impact on the health of one spouse, resulting in his or her death, a similar outcome could follow for the other. This explanation, however, fails to adequately explain the excess mortality observed among widowers compared to widows because the odds of illness and death would be similar for those whose health is similarly threatened. An alternative explanation involves the role of stress. Some believe that the degree of stress associated with spousal bereavement can suppress the immune system, rendering the bereaved more susceptible to disease and subsequent mortality unless they have adequate support to buffer the unhealthy effects of stress. Consequently, widowers who are unable to benefit from supportive relationships with others after their spouse's death can experience a potential negative impact on their health. Furthermore, some widowers respond to stress by engaging in unhealthy behaviors like smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, and poor nutrition practices.
The health of widowers can suffer because they lack many of the skills that are important in self-care. Many tasks of daily living that are essential to health and well-being could go unaddressed by widowers if any of them were primarily the responsibility of their deceased wife. These could include meal preparation, shopping for adequate food, housekeeping, doing laundry, among other daily chores, all of which if left unattended for a long period of time are added sources of stress that could have adverse health consequences.
The division of labor concerning these tasks and skills tends to be defined according to gender, particularly among the older generations, but younger widowers often do not fare much better. Although many women participate in the workforce, they still are largely responsible for household management, cooking, and other tasks of daily living important for the care of the entire family. Widowers unskilled in these areas not only could find their health compromised for the reasons stated earlier, but also might feel less confident to meet the daily challenges of widowed life, which detracts from their ability to cope. Alternatively, those who learn to master many of these new responsibilities often cope more effectively and are at lower risk for poor health because they become more autonomous and eventually take better care of themselves.
How Well Widowers Adapt
Although not without its common elements, the process of adaptation to spousal loss can vary from individual to individual. While the most difficult times can be within the first six months to a year, some adapt more quickly whereas a few do not manage well for an extended period of time. Some characteristics, however, are associated with more successful adaptation. These include positive self-esteem, keeping busy with meaningful activity, having adequate opportunity for support and to share one's feelings, and a sense of being in control and confident in one's ability to cope effectively.
These attributes are largely independent of gender. The Harvard Bereavement Study, however, did make a distinction between social and emotional recovery. The widowers in that study adapted emotionally to the loss at similar pace to the widows, although their strategies may have differed. Alternatively, the men tended to move more quickly toward social recovery—that aspect of adaptation that refers to the need to reorganize one's life. This often was driven by the necessity to balance their role in the workplace with those pertaining to managing a household and caring for children. This was a source of strain for some of them that adversely impacted their effectiveness on the job and they felt compelled to find a way to alleviate it.
This need to reorganize sometimes predisposes widowed men to remarry. Many use remarriage as a way to fulfill their need for companionship and to resume an active sex life. Some, especially those who are younger, also believe remarriage once again provides a partner to help them meet the multiple responsibilities of being a worker, father, and head of household. Whether or not widowers eventually remarry, however, is not necessarily an indicator of how well they coped with the death of their former spouse. It is true that some of those who remarry report lower stress levels and greater life satisfaction, but nearly half of these remarriages dissolve, especially if they occur more quickly after the prior loss. Widowers who do not remarry are equally capable of maintaining meaningful relationships and adapting successfully to their new life.
Like any life transition, becoming a widower is associated with its own set of challenges and tasks that need to be successfully met in order to adapt effectively. At first, this can be highly disruptive, but as widowers have opportunities to learn the skills to meet these new challenges (whether managing a household, tending to their children's needs, assuming new self-care responsibilities, or becoming more comfortable with how they express their emotions), they develop a greater sense of coping ability and feel more confident to meet future challenges. Many bereaved men over time demonstrate a high degree of resilience and some grow personally from the experience. While most manage to accomplish this on their own, however, others require some assistance along the way.
Most bereaved rely on their own personal resources as well as the support of others in their lives for the means to adapt and do not require more formal assistance. For those experiencing greater difficulty, however, interventions like support groups and one-on-one programs can be effective, especially if accessed early in bereavement. While a small proportion of bereaved spouses in general participate in these programs, widowers as a rule are typically less receptive to them and often shy away from helping situations, at least at first. Consistent with their need to appear in control, especially regarding the display of their emotions, most widowers try to make it on their own even when they can benefit from outside help.
This is not to say that all widowers avoid participating in traditional bereavement interventions like self-help groups. Many, however, are not drawn to what they believe to be counseling interventions because they often perceive them as services designed primarily for women. Widowers are typically uncomfortable with environments where the open expression of emotion is encouraged because it is not consistent with their preferred way to grieve. Instead, researchers and practitioners suggest that bereaved men are more suited to active coping mechanisms that may include being engaged in meaningful activities. Programs that primarily feature such activities could have more appeal to widowers. Group walks and outings, for example, can be just as beneficial as traditional support groups because men who participate are able to interact and support one another in these situations and can do so more comfortably. Because the focus is on activity, however, as opposed to support or counseling itself, it is more consistent with many widowers' coping styles and is consequently less threatening. Because widowers use strategies that tend to be more cognitive than emotional in nature, they do well with books and other educational resources that help them help themselves.
Because of the unique problems widowers have assuming new responsibilities, they can benefit from programs that focus on skill-building and self-care education to help them successfully manage those tasks of daily living important to health, functioning, and independence. Issues of greater concern for widowers might include meal planning and preparation, housekeeping, and doing laundry. These programs can focus as well on more general health promotion topics like stress management, health screenings, immunizations, medication management, and physical activity, to name a few, that are equally relevant to widows and widowers but often go ignored or neglected by them given their new situation.
Although most bereavement programs have differential appeal to widowers, the benefits of participating vary from widower to widower. Success rate usually depends on the level of difficulty they are experiencing, what resources they already have in place, their needs, and their own unique situation. Interventions are not a panacea and most eventually cope without them. Although the strategies they choose at times might differ, widowers are as likely as widows to cope and eventually adapt to their new lives.
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MICHAEL S. CASERTA